Earth Day: Fighting climate change with cybersecurity

One of the biggest challenges of our time is climate change. The world struggles to get our ongoing path to environmental destruction under control. Today is Earth Day. This day is for most people about avoiding meat, taking public transport, using reusable shopping bags, drinking wine instead of beer, and turning lights off – but nerds can do more than that. Our biggest challenge is to reduce the climate gas emissions from transport.


Walkable cities are nice – and cybersecurity can contribute to that! Happy Earth Day 2017!

  • Information technology has a gigantic role to play in the solution to that problem:
  • Self-driving cars, buses, metros make public transport cheaper. But can they be hacked? Of course they can.
  • Smart assistants using AI to help plan your day, your travel and to optimize your choices also with regard to environmental footprint can do a lot. But can they be hacked, thereby destroying all hope of privacy protection? Sure they can.
  • Telework can reduce the need to travel to work, and the need for business travel to talk to people in other locations. This brings a whole swath of issues: privacy, reliability. If people don’t trust the solutions for communication, system access, and if they don’t work reliably, people will keep boarding planes to meet clients and driving cars to go to the office.
  • Cloud services are nice. They make working together over distances a lot easier. Cloud services require data centers. If the reliability of a data center is not quite up to expectations the standard solution is to replicate everything in another datacenter, or for the customer perhaps to replicate everything in his or her own datacenter, or possibly mirroring it to another cloud provider. This may not be seen as necessary if the reliability is super-good with the primary provider – particularly the ability to deal with DDoS attacks. Building reliable datacenters is therefore part of the climate solution – in addition to providing datacenters with green energy and efficient cooling systems.

OK, so DDoS is a climate problem? Yes, it is. And what do cybercriminals need to perform large-scale DDoS attacks? They need botnets. They get botnets by infecting IoT devices, laptops, phones, workstations and so on with malware. Endpoint security is therefore, also, a climate issue. Following sensible security management is therefore a contributor to protecting the environment. So in addition to choosing the bus over the car today, you can also help Mother Earth by beefing up the security on your private devices:

  • Make sure to patch everything, including routers, cell phones, laptops, smart home solutions, alarm systems, internet connected refrigerators and the whole lot.
  • Stop using cloud services with sketchy security and privacy practices. Force vendors to beef up their security by using your consumer power. And protect your own interests at the same time. This is doing everyone a favor – it makes AI assistants and such trustworthy, making more people use them, which favors optimized transport, consumption and communications.
  • Prioritize efficient, safe and secure telework. Use VPN when working from coffee shops, and promote the “local work global impact” way of doing things. Being able to avoid excessive travel, whether it is to the office or to a client on the other side of the globe, your decisions have impact. Especially if you manage to influence other people to prioritize the same things.

Happy Earth Day 2017. Promote climate action through security practices!

How do leaked cyber weapons change the threat landscape for businesses?

Recently, a group called Shadow Brokers released hundreds of megabytes of tools claimed to be stemming from the NSA and other intelligence organizations. Ars has written extensively on the subject: The leaked code is available on The exploits target several Microsoft products still in service (and commonly used), as well as the SWIFT banking network. Adding speculation to the case is the fact that Microsoft silently released patches to vulnerabilities claimed to be zerodays in the leaked code prior to the actual leak. But what does all of this mean for “the rest of us”?


Analysis shows that lifecycle management of software needs to be proactive, considering the security features of new products against the threat landscape prior to end-of-life for existing systems as a best practice. The threat from secondary adversaries may be increasing due to availability of new tools, and the intelligence agencies have also demonstrated willingness to target organizations in “friendly” countries; nation state actors should thus include domestic ones in threat modeling. 

There are two key questions we need to ask and try to answer:

  1. Should threat models include domestic nation state actors, including illegal use of intelligence capabilities against domestic targets?
  2. Does the availability of the leaked tools increase the threat from secondary actors, e.g. organized crime groups?

Taking on the first issue first: should we include domestic intelligence in threat models for “normal” businesses? Let us examine the C-I-A security triangle from this perspective.

  • Confidentiality: are domestic intelligence organizations interested in stealing intellectual property or obtaining intelligence on critical personnel within the firm? This tends to be either supply chain driven if you are not yourself the direct target, or data collection may occur due to innocent links to other organization’s that are being targeted by the intelligence unit.
  • Integrity (data manipulation): if your supply chain is involved in activities drawing sufficient attention to require offensive operations, including non-cyber operations, integrity breaches are possible. Activities involving terrorism funding or illegal arms trade would increase the likelihood of such interest from authorities.
  • Availability: nation state actors are not the typical adversary that will use DoS-type attacks, unless it is to mask other intelligence activities by drawing response capabilities to the wrong frontier.

The probability of APT activities from domestic intelligence is for most firms still low. The primary sectors where this could be a concern are critical infrastructure and financial institutions. Also firms involved in the value chains of illegal arms trade, funding of terrorism or human trafficking are potential targets but these firms are often not aware of their role in the illegal business streams of their suppliers and customers.

The second question was if the leak poses an increased threat from other adversary types, such as organized crime groups. Organized crime groups run structured operations across multiple sectors, both legal and illegal. They tend to be opportunistic and any new tools being made available that can support their primary cybercrime activities will most likely be made use of quickly. The typical high-risk activities include credit card and payment fraud, document fraud and identity theft, illicit online trade including stolen intellectual property, and extortion schemes by direct blackmail or use of malware. The leaked tools can support several of these activities, including extortion schemes and information theft. This indicates that the risk level does in fact increase with the leaks of additional exploit packages.

How should we now apply this knowledge in our security governance?

  • The tools use exploits in older versions of operating systems. Keeping systems up-to-date remains crucial. New versions of Windows tend to come with improved security. Migration prior to end-of-life of previous version should be considered.
  • In risk assessments, domestic intelligence should be considered together with foreign intelligence and proxy actors. Stakeholder and value chain links remain key drivers for this type of threat.
  • Organized crime: targeted threats are value chain driven. Most likely increased exposure due to new cyberweapons available to the organized crime groups for firms with exposure and old infrastructure.

Avoid keeping sensitive info in a code repo – how to remove files from git version history

One of the vulnerabilities that are really easy to exploit is when people leave super-sensitive information in source code – and you get your hands on this source code. In early prototyping a lot of people will hardcode passwords and certificate keys in their code, and remove it later when moving to production code. Sometimes it is not even removed from production. But even in the case where you do remove it, this sensitive information can linger in your version history. What if your app is an open source app where you are sharing the code on github? You probably don’t want to share your passwords…

Key on keyboard

Don’t let bad guys get the key to your databases and other valuable files by searching old versions of your code in the repository.

Getting this sensitive info out of your repository is not as easy as deleting the file from the repo and adding it to the .gitignore file – because this does not touch your version history. What you need to do is this:

  • Merge any remote changes into your local repo, to make sure you don’t remove the work of your team if they have commited after your own last merge/commit
  • Remove the file history for your sensitive files from your local repo using the filter-branch command:

git filter-branch –force –index-filter \
‘git rm –cached –ignore-unmatch \

Although the command above looks somewhat scary it is not that hard to dig out – you can find in the the Github doc files. When that’s done, there’s only a few more things to do:

  • Add the files in question to your .gitignore file
  • Force write to the repo (git push origin –force –all)
  • Tell all your collaborator to clone the repo as a fresh start to avoid them merging in the sensitive files again

Also, if you have actually pushed sensitive info to a remote repository, particularly if it is an open source publicly available one, make sure you change all passwords and certificates that were included previously – this info should be considered compromised.

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What does the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) mean for your company’s privacy protection and cybersecurity?

The EU is ramping up the focus on privacy with a new regulation that will be implemented into local legislations in the EEC area from 2018. The changes are huge for some countries, and in particular the sanctions the new law is making available to authorities should be cause for concern for business that have not adapted. Shockingly, a Norwegian survey shows that 1 in 3 business leaders have not even heard of the new legislation, and 80% of the respondents have not made any effort to learn about the new requirements and its implications for their business (read the DN article here in Norwegian: The Norwegian Data Protection Authority says this is “shocking” and says all businesses will face new requirements and that it is the duty of business leaders to orient themselves about this and act to comply with the new rules.

The new EU general data protection regulation (GDPR) will become law in most European countries from 2018. Make sure you have the right controls in place in time for the new regulation to become law. This even applies to non-European businesses offering services in Europe.

Here’s a short form of key requirements in the new regulation:

  • All businesses must have a human readable privacy policy: many privacy and data protection policies today are written in legal jargon and made to be hard to understand on purpose. The new regulation will require businesses to state their policies and describe how personal data are protected in a language that is comprehensible to the user group they are working with, including children if they are in the target user group of the company.
  • You need to do a risk assessment for privacy and data protection of personal data. The risk assessment should consider the risk to the owner of the data, not only the business. If the potential consequences of a data breach are high for the data owner, the authorities should be involved in discussions on how to mitigate the risk.
  • All new solutions need to build privacy protections into the design. The highest level of data protection in a software’s settings must be used as default, meaning you can only collect a minimum of data by default unless the user actively changes the settings to allow you to collect more data. This will have large implications for many cloud providers that by default collect a lot of data. See for example here, how Google Maps is collecting location data and tracking the user’s location:
  • All services run by authorities and most services run by private companies will require the organization to assign a data protection officer responsible for compliance with the GDPR and for communicating with the authorities. This applies to all businesses that in their operation is handling personal data on a certain scale and frequency – meaning in practice that most businesses must have a data protection officer. It is permissible to hire in a third-party for this role instead of having an employee to fill the position.
  • The new regulation also applies to non-European businesses that offer services to Europe.
  • The new rules also apply to data processing service providers, and subcontractors. That means that cloud providers must also follow these rules, even if the service is used by their customer, who must also comply.
  • There will be new rules about communication of data breaches – both to the data protection authorities and to the data subjects being harmed. All breaches that have implications for individuals must be reported to the data protection authorities within 72 hours of the breach.
  • The data subjects hold the keys to your use of their data. If you store data about a person and this person orders you to delete their personal data, you must do so. You are also required to let the person transfer personal data to another service provider in a commonly used file format if so requested.

The new regulation also provides the authorities with the ability to impose very large fines, up to 20 million Euros or up to 4% of the global annual turnover, whichever is greater.This is, however, a maximum and not likely to be the normal sanctions. A warning letter would be the start, then audits from the data protection authorities. Fines can be issued but will most likely be within the common practice of corporate fines within the country in question.

Implications for cybersecurity

The GDPR has focus on privacy and the mechanisms necessary to avoid abuse of personal data. The regulation also requires you to be vigilant about cybersecurity in order to avoid data breaches. In practicular, Section 39 states (see text here:

“Personal data should be processed in a manner that ensures appropriate security and confidentiality of the personal data, including for preventing unauthorised access to or use of personal data and the equipment used for the processing.”

This means that you should implement reasonable controls for ensuring the confidentiality, integrity and availability of these data and the processing facilities (software, networks, hardware, and also the people involved in processing the data). It would be a very good idea to implement at least a reasonable information security management system, following good practices such as described in ISO 27001. If you want a roadmap to an ISO 27001 compliance management system, see this post summarizing the key aspects there:

You may also be interested in the 88-page slide deck with an overview of cybersecurity basics: it is a free download if you sign up as a Safecontrols Insider.

Physically tracking people using their cloud service accounts

Nobody likes being tracked. Still, most people store a detailed account of their movements on their phones, often shared with multiple apps. If you can get access to some of these user accounts you can track their whereabouts down to a relatively detailed level. In real time.

Tracking People – Google Maps Style


Google Maps: tracking your movements. These are my movements, the light blue ones are on foot, the darker color is me driving a car. I’ve taken the real movement patterns and moved them to Seoul for the sake of not showing you all of the things I did yesterday (I was not in Seoul last night – so this is #FakeNews). They track where you go, when you go there, how long you stay at each location, and stuff you add to your Google account at various locations, like pictures.  

I have a 9-year old son, and one night I was watching the news with him. There was one story that got him curious, and almost angry, and rightly so. It was about a smartwatch for kids that was becoming popular as a gift from parents. This particular smartwatch allowed surveillance of the kids’ whereabouts via GPS, and they could also call their kids on the watch instead of giving them a phone. Parents can also turn on a one-way audio channel that allows them to eavesdrop on their kids’ conversations. My son told me he thinks this is unfair and outrageous – and I completely agree. He felt somewhat better when I told him that he is not going to get a watch like that (he has an analog wristwatch, a ting with no internet). More kids should care about privacy too.

Note to parents and teachers: when we teach kids it is OK to be spied on, they will be less concerned with privacy in adult life too. Surveillance is a key feature of authoritarian regimes, and our world is increasingly moving in the wrong direction here. Don’t teach your kids it is OK for people to spy on them. Protect our democracies by teaching your kids to take care of their own privacy.

Next I asked him if he believed people could be spied on using their cell phones. The answer was “maybe”. I told him that they can but most parents don’t know how, and hopefully have no wish to do so. He has an Android phone – and I told him that I’ve made the settings on that phone such that it does not store his location data in a Google account but that most people who use Android never think about this. And the same goes for Apple. He was skeptical about this, so I told him I would turn on the “timeline” feature on my own Android, and show him later what the app stores on Google’s servers. Afterwards I showed him what they track (including where I was, how much time I spent where, the photos I’d taken, and the like).

Take-away points

  • Think it through if you choose to turn on features like Google’s timeline. Or rather, think it through if you are not taking steps to turn it off – it is on by default.
  • Guard your account’s security like a hawk; especially if you choose to use these features. Turn on two-factor authentication now.
  • Talk to your kids about privacy. The habits they learn now is what they bring with them into adulthood. Teaching your kid about privacy is an important contribution to safeguarding democracy and freedom of speech.
  • The example here was using Android phones. The story is the same on other platforms, and with other mapping and location based service providers than Google.
  • If your password is leaked, change it immediately.

What do you think about this? Let me know in the comments! Especially – do you think it is OK to track your kids like the watch described above? Are you OK with Google and their competitors storing such detailed location data about you?

6 things everyone can do to avoid hacking by cyber criminals

Protecting your personal data is important, whether you are a teenager or in retirement. A lot of people are confused about what they can do to avoid becoming victims of internet fraud. Cyber criminals use phishing attacks – email scams where they trick you to click a download link to viruses, or to open attachments that are no good for you. This is by far the most common way to steal someones data, and to abuse it.


Keep the criminals away from your personal data!

There are two common ways hackers steal your money;

  • They hold your computer hostage by using a virus type known as ransomeware or cryptovirus. What this does is it locks your computer files with a password, and they demand money to give you the password back. Sometimes they make you pay several times and don’t give it back to you anyway.
  • They steal your payment data, like a credit card. Malware that monitors your purchases can send your credit card data to the hacker, who then abuses the credit card by buying things or paying to himself by setting up a merchant account with a credit card processing company like PayPal.

The question is: what can you do to avoid this? The following list contains about the same information that big companies are offering their employees as cyber awareness training. If you follow these 6 rules you will reduce the risk of this type of cyber attack by around 90%:

  1. Always be critical of e-mails you receive and don’t open links or attachments you are not sure about. Check the actual internet address of the link and see if it makes sense before opening it. Copy and paste it into your browser instead of clicking it to see this. Don’t visit the site if it looks suspicious.
  2. Keep all of your software up-to-date.  Software upgrades are normally security fixes – they are removing vulnerabilities hackers need to attack your software. Only use software from reputable sources.
  3. Don’t use public open wifi without a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN creates a protected path for your data communication with the internet, making it impossible for hackers on the network to read your data traffic.
  4. Always have antivirus software running on your computer, and a firewall.
  5. Regularly back up your data. You can use a USB drive for this, and disconnect it when you are done backing up. This way hackers can’t lock your files away from you, because you have a safe backup they cannot reach.
  6. Don’t use the same passwords for many online sites. Sites on the internet are hacked quite often, and if you have used the same email and password on many sites, they get access to everything. ID theft is a big problem, partly because people use the same password everywhere.

Major discount grocery store chain (REMA 1000) exposes their whole customer database

REMA1000 did not use any form of authentication on their customer database used by a loyalty program. They claim that this is nothing to worry about. I disagree. Identity theft, blackmail and potential surveillance are threats worth worrying about.

REMA1000, a Norwegian discount store chain, recently released a new customer loyalty program they named ‘Æ’. The letter ‘Æ’ is also the local word for ‘I’ in the Norwegian dialect in the area where Rema1000 is headquartered (Trondheim, the city where I live).



The Æ app promising you discounts. And previously it was exposing your data to the world.


The way the loyalty system works, is that you install an app on your smartphone, and register your debit card in the app. Whenever you make a purchase they will register what you have bought, and you are offered a 10% discount on the 10 items you spend the most money on, as well as on all vegetables and fruits. Sounds like a sweet deal, right?

The problem is only that the app was launched without requiring any form of authentication between the app and the backend database. This is reported by the Norwegian newspaper today. The vulnerability would allow anyone to download customer data from their database, down to each item purchased, as well as key customer data such as phone mumbers and partial credit card numbers. The vulnerability was discovered by infosec professional Hallvared Nygård, who spoke to Stavanger Aftenblad about the issue (another Norwegian newspaper).

In a comment to Aftenposten, Rema1000 claims that they “take the situation seriously”, and accuse the security researcher of having obtained access to the information in an illegal way. They say customers have no reason to worry with regard to security with regard to the data they leave with the stores.

This attitude shows a lack of understanding of security risks from REMA1000. First of all, lack of authentication between frontend and backend in a web application is close to inexcusable. It would be disovered by any reasonable web app security scanner. Protecting database access through secure authentication is the core concept of web application security and should be taught in any introduction to secure development class at your nearest university. Even more worrisome is perhaps that REMA1000 claims customers have nothing to worry about. Identity theft, blackmail and surveillance is pretty serious stuff to worry about if you ask me.  On top of this, REMA1000 is seemingly looking to blame the security researcher for reporting the vulnerability.